A fire intentionally set at Canada's main gender affirmation surgery clinic is being considered by local police as a hate crime.
"We're not saying it's not a hate crime, so we're going to treat it as a hate crime until [and if] the investigation proves otherwise," Const. Abdullah Emran of the Montreal police service confirmed late Tuesday night.
The Centre Métropolitain de Chirurgie — a clinic in Montreal's Ahuntsic-Cartierville borough that specializes in plastic and bariatric surgery — was the target of an alleged arsonist Monday night.
The trans community says the clinic is the only one in the entire country that accepts government health insurance, meaning its temporary loss is a significant blow for the growing waiting list of transgender Canadians looking to undergo the complicated surgery.
Emran said a person appearing to be a man entered the clinic around 8:45 p.m., set off an incendiary device inside a room and fled the scene. So far no suspects have been identified. The clinic is expected to make a statement Wednesday.
And while police may be choosing to treat the arson as a hate crime for the time being, Canadian law does not formally recognize trans individuals are a protected class. Repeated efforts to classify violence against individuals based on their gender identity or gender expression in the Criminal Code as hate crimes were stymied by the previous government.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signalled his support for updating the law to expressly protect trans individuals, but has yet to take any action in that regard.
The private clinic is owned by Dr. Pierre Brassard, known throughout Canada's transgender community for operating the only clinic in the country that will do the full suite of operations required to undergo sex reassignment surgery — also referred to as gender affirmation surgery. Brassard does both top and bottom trans operations, including vaginoplasty, phalloplasty, breast augmentation or removal and chest reconstruction, as well as a variety of other gender affirming surgeries. Dr. Brassard also runs a convalescence centre next to the clinic, where patients go to recover from their surgeries.
"Dr. Brassard is the only doctor in Canada who does any trans-related surgeries that are [government] funded. If you're going to get surgery, you're going to go to this clinic," says Sophia Banks, a new Montrealer who recently relocated from Ontario.
Banks says she signed up for the clinic's waiting list while still a resident of Ontario, and was given a two-year wait just for the consultation. Now that she's moved to Quebec, she'll have to sign up all over again if she wants to undergo surgery at Dr. Brassard's clinic.
"What if the arson had succeeded and we just lost the only trans clinic in Canada? What a disaster for the trans community that would be. There's no alternative — there's nowhere else for people to go."
Long wait times are part and parcel of being a trans person in Canada. It could take upwards of four years from the time you begin the proceedings — which include seeing no fewer than two specialists, getting letters to prove you really need the surgery, waiting for a consultation — before finally getting the surgery.
Unless, of course, you can afford to pay for it out of pocket — which can run thousands of dollars — without help from your province's health care coverage. Unfortunately that's not the case for most Canadian trans people.
Gabrielle Bouchard, the peer support and trans advocacy coordinator at Montreal's Centre For Gender Advocacy, says any additional delays would be a huge deal for people in line to get operated on.
For starters, Bouchard points out, travel plans and time off from work may not be refundable or negotiable. And for some people, getting sex-reassignment surgery is just one step of a long process of getting the sex designation on government documents changed.
Rebecca Hammond is a Toronto-based primary-care nurse and Trans PULSE Project research co-investigator who was operated on by Dr. Brassard eight years ago. She says the potential health repercussions could be significant — suicidality is already prevalent in the trans community and surgery setbacks could drive some to the edge.
She says provincial health ministries need to come up with a contingency plan if the Montreal clinic is going to be out of order for any length of time. "What are they going to do in the meantime?" she asked.
Whether there will be delays in the scheduled surgeries remains to be seen. A patient who recently received a vaginoplasty at Dr. Brassard's clinic says her follow-up appointment scheduled for today is going ahead as planned. She says it will take place in an office in the convalescence home next to the main clinic.
She says she's disappointed to hear about the fire but happy to know that at least her appointment hasn't been set back.
She says of Dr. Brassard: "He takes his job very seriously. I remember when I had the operation done I told him that maybe everyone tells him that, that I was so glad I had the surgery. You see he takes it to heart, and he felt honoured. He doesn't say much but he's really passionate about his job and he really believes in what he's doing."
Hammond also mentions that there may be a silver lining to the Montreal clinic's fire, if only in that is has made more Canadians aware that the options available to trans people seeking sex-reassignment surgery are lamentable.
"What I see is an opportunity, potentially," she says. "There's already a need here. Surgeries should be happening in Toronto."
Sophia Banks wonders what would have happened had the clinic burned down completely. As it is, there's no knowing how long the clinic will be shut down for and the extent to which the surgery schedule will be disrupted.
"What if the arson had succeeded and we just lost the only trans clinic in Canada? What a disaster for the trans community that would be," Banks says. "There's no alternative — there's nowhere else for people to go."
Follow Tracey Lindeman on Twitter: @traceylindeman